Up to 80% of each private rural property in the Brazilian Amazon is protected by law through the Legal Reserve (LR) mechanism of the federal Forest Code, underlining the conservation importance of forests on private lands in one of the world́’s most important biomes. However, our understanding of the discrepancies in levels of forest protection on private lands as obligated by the law versus what occurs in practice remains very poor.

This study assessed patterns of forest cover and legal compliance with the Forest Code in the 1.25 Mkm2 Brazilian state of Pará, which has the highest deforestation rate in the Amazon. It evaluates the LR deficit and surplus patterns for different sized properties and across 144 municipalities, and finds that the total LR surplus (12.6 Mha) is more than five times the total area of deficit (2.3 Mha). Yet, from the total surplus, only 11% can be legally deforested while the remaining 89% is already protected by law but can be used (sold or rented) to compensate for areas that are under deficit.

Medium and large-scale properties make up most of the total LR deficit area, while agrarian reform settlements had comparatively large amounts of both compensation-only surplus and deforestable surplus. Most of the municipalities (77%) in the state could compensate their total deficit with surplus areas of LR in the same municipality, while the remainder can be compensate their deficit in one or more neighbouring municipalities, indicating compensation can always take place close to the source of the deficit.

Maximizing the environmental benefits of achieving Forest Code compliance requires measures that go beyond the existing legal framework, including interventions to avoid further deforestation in places where it is still legal, compensate in close proximity to areas with legal reserve deficit and promote local restoration on degraded lands.

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